Oliver Sacks

14th December 2007 at 00:00
He was narrow-minded, bigoted and had a hideous stutter, but the neurologist and his friends thought their teacher was splendid.The day that Francesco Ticciati, a passionate, excitable Italian, came to the house to give piano lessons was one of my earliest memories. He was a brilliant teacher, a Bach lover and a Bach maven (expert). He drilled the preludes and fugues into me and my three older brothers and probably determined that my own first and most constant musical love would be for Bach.

Ticciati would shout and bang his fist on the piano in frustration when things went wrong. He was choleric, but without any malice or sadism - unlike the hideous abusive headmaster who darkened my life between the years of six and 10 when I was evacuated to Vernon House in the little village of Braefield, near Northampton. He was a monster: vicious and sadistic and he regularly beat us with relish.

There were some pleasant things though: a lusty young woman who taught horseriding, I had occasional piano lessons and cups of tea with Mrs Clayton in her cottage and I learned to love the countryside.

When I came back to London my music lessons continued with Mrs Silver, a red-haired woman who died in childbirth and then with Ticciati's son, a mild man who gave me a mug of Lapsang souchong tea which I had never had before and I thought tasted of kippers.

Formal school was of little use or interest to me as a child. All my enjoyment was extracurricular. My real educators were the public library, the museums and my uncle's electric light bulb factory.

Uncle Dave (whom we called Uncle Tungsten) inducted me into the joys of chemistry and I shared his passion and delight in chemical transformations. I watched him at work in a wing collar, his shirtsleeves rolled up, as the heavy, dark tungsten powder was pressed, hammered, sintered at red heat then drawn into finer and finer wire for the filaments.

At that time I was doing classics at school. I got a scholarship to St Paul's and also to Oxford so I suppose there was some part of me absorbing on automatic. I probably simulated attention but I didn't enjoy school. I wasn't sporty (apart from swimming, which is still a passion) and didn't like team games. I'm rather a solitary person.

From aged 10 to 14 I wanted to be a chemist, then I moved towards biology and marine biology (medicine was a relative late-comer) and met the teacher who had the greatest influence on me and many others: Sidney Pask. He was splendid. But also narrow-minded, bigoted and had a hideous stutter. However, like Ticciati, he was marvellously passionate and he demanded that we were as dedicated and single-minded as he was.

Three of us, Jonathan Miller, Eric Korn (who is now an antiquarian bookseller) and me, formed an inseparable trio and would go with Sid on freshwater expeditions and to the marine biology station in Scotland. There were weekend plant collecting trips, sometimes in freezing winter. He instilled in all of us a lasting passion for biology. I had a particular love of cephalopods, squids and cuttlefish.

Some of Sidney Pask's pupils were repelled by his intensity and found him an impossibly demanding and exacting taskmaster, but to those who responded to his challenge he was the most influential teacher of all. There is now a group of about 70 of us who call ourselves the Pasquidae who still keep in touch and we are planning to endow a laboratory or a prize in his honour.

Oliver Sacks, 74, neurologist and writer, was born in London. He is Professor of Clinical Neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. He has written 10 books including Awakenings (which was made into a film starring Robin Williams) and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The latest, Musicophilia, has just been published by Picador. He was talking to Pamela Coleman.

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